Tan Tock Seng

Singapore Infopedia

by Tien, Jenny Mui Mun


Tan Tock Seng (b. 1798, Malacca, Malaysia–d. 24 February 1850, Singapore)1 was an entrepreneur and philanthropist of Hokkien descent.2 Tan started out as a humble vegetable seller and rose to become one of Singapore’s most eminent philanthropists and a leader of the Chinese community.3 He was the first Asian to be appointed Justice of the Peace.In 1844, he helped set up a hospital for the poor that now bears his name.5

Early life
Tan was born in Malacca in 1798, the third son of an immigrant from Fujian province, China, and a local Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) woman. In 1819, at age 21, Tan left Malacca and came to Singapore.The enterprising young man started out as a vegetable seller, bringing produce from the countryside to sell in the city. By 1827, he had saved up enough money to open a shop along the riverside at Boat Quay.7

Through a joint business venture in land speculation with J. H. Whitehead of Shaw, Whitehead & Co., Tan became a wealthy businessman.8 His landed properties included 50 acres of land where the railway station at Tanjong Pagar was located, and tracts of land stretching from the Padang all the way to High Street and Tank Road.He also owned a block of shophouses at Ellenborough Building and a 14-acre fruit plantation opposite the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital.10

Tan made generous contributions to charity.11 He was known to take care of burial expenses for destitute Chinese.12 His most famous philanthropic gesture was the donation of $5,000 towards the building of the Chinese Pauper Hospital (later renamed Tan Tock Seng Hospital) in 1844 at Pearl’s Hill. The building was designed by government surveyor J. T. Thomson. Although it was completed at the end of 1846, the building was operated as a hospital only from 1849 onwards, as the government had used it as a temporary convict jail.13 Tan also founded the Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore’s oldest temple and the centre of worship for the Hokkien community.14

Tan was the first Asian to be made Justice of the Peace by then Governor William J. Butterworth.15 His role in helping the early Chinese immigrants settle disputes earned him the title “Captain of the Chinese”.16

After a short illness, Tan died at age 52 on 24 February 1850.17 His original burial site was unknown, but his remains were later exhumed and interred at Outram Road.18 His daughter-in-law, Chua Seah Neo, and granddaughter-in-law, Wuing Neo, were also buried there.19 In 1969, his grave was under threat of demolition during road widening work, and his descendants intervened.20 After his tomb was found to be neglected in 1989, descendants of Tan Tock Seng set up a trust fund to finance the ongoing repairs and maintenance of their family graves.21

 Tan Whay Teck.22

Brother: Three brothers, of which the eldest was Oo Long. As for the other two, the older went to China and the younger probably died.23
Wife: Lee Seo Neo, who was also generous in her support of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital and paid for a women’s ward built in 1867.24
Sons: Three sons, Tan Kim Ching (also spelled Tan Kim Cheng), Tan Swee Lim and Tan Teck Guan. Kim Ching, the eldest, was also a philanthropist and continued with his financial support for the development of Tan Tock Seng Hospital.25
Daughters: Three. One daughter was married to Lee Cheng Tee, shipowner and chief partner of Cheng-tee Watt Seng and Company.26

Jenny Tien

1. Kamala Devi Dhoraisingham and Dhoraisingham S. Samuel, Tan Tock Seng: Pioneer: His Life, Times, Contributions and Legacy (Kota Kinabalu: Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2003), 27 (Call no. RSING 338.04092 KAM); “Domestic Occurrence Death,” Straits Times, 26 February 1850, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. K. Mulliner and Lian The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore (Metuchen, NJ.: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 149. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 MUL-[HIS])
3. David Brazil, Street Smart: Singapore (Singapore: Times Books International, 1991), 214. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BRA-[HIS]) 
4. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 27; Singapore Days of Old (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine, 1992), 51. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
5. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 34–35.
6. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 1–2; “Founder’s Note,” Tan Tock Seng Hospital, last updated 7 October 2021.
7. Singapore Days of Old, 51; Brazil, Street Smart, 214.
8. Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 149.
9. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 27; Singapore Days of Old, 51.
10. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 27; Singapore Days of Old, 51.
11. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 24.
12. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 24, 27; Singapore Days of Old, 51.
13. “When Lepers Roamed Singapore Streets,” Straits Times, 5 May 1956, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 34–35, 42.
14. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 43, 45; Singapore Days of Old, 51.
15. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 27; Singapore Days of Old, 51.
16. Singapore Days of Old, 51.
17. “Domestic Occurrence Death”; “Died,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 1 March 1850, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Singapore. National Heritage Board, Tiong Bahru: Heritage Trail (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2013), 19. (Call no. RSING 915.95704 TIO)
19. Debra Ann Francisco, “Hidden Secrets in Little Bohemia,” Straits Times, 4 April 2015, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Ow We Mei, “Historic Grave in Danger of Demolition,” Straits Times, 22 April 1969, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
21. B. W. Koh, “Neglected Pioneer's Tomb Could Be Made a National Monument,” Straits Times, 6 March 1989, 22; Lawrence Tan, “Why Tan Tock Seng’s grave Should Be Made a National Monument,” Straits Times, 16 August 2009, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Singapore Days of Old, 51.
23. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 2.
24. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 57; Lee Siew Hua, 150 Years of Caring: The Legacy of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 1994), 14. (Call no. RSING 362.11095957 LEE) 
25. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 54, 79.
26. Dhoraisingham and Samuel, Tan Tock Seng, 54, 79; Singapore Days of Old, 51–52.

Further resources
Jamie Ee Wen Wei
Tan Tock Seng Clan's Grave Undertaking,” Straits Times, 2 August 2009, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

Lawrence Tan, “Why Tan Tock Seng’s grave Should Be Made a National Monument,” Straits Times, 16 August 2009, 29. (From NewspaperSG)

Lim Phay-Ling, “Singapore’s First Heroes,” Straits Times, 6 November 1983, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Ow We Mei, “Historic Grave in Danger of Demolition,” Straits Times, 22 April 1969, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Pioneers, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1993, videocassette. (Call no. RAV 959.57 PIO-[HIS])

Singapore Free Press, One Hundred Years of Progress: Centenary Number, October 8, 1935 (Singapore: Singapore Free Press, 1935), 6. (Call no. RRARE 959.59 SIN; microfilm NL3615)

Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' history of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 61, 66. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])

Sue-Ann Chia, “From Pauper to Philanthropist: The Tock Seng Story,” BiblioAsia (Jan–Mar 2017).

Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital: A Distinguished Past, a Vision for the Future (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 2000). (Call no. RSING 362.11095957 TAN) 

Y. L. Low, “Founding Father,” Singapore Tatler (April–September 1990): 138–141. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ST)

The information in this article is valid as of June 2021 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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